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Obama’s Defenders: He’s Not Corrupt, Just Dishonest and Incompetent

There was a running joke in the fall of 2008 that John McCain should simply re-air Hillary Clinton’s “3 a.m. phone call” ad, which highlighted Barack Obama’s lack of experience and meager knowledge of world affairs, and just tack on “I’m John McCain, and I approve this message” at the end of the ad. The point was that thanks to the bitter primary battle between the Clintons and Obama, Democrats had already developed the most effective lines of attack against Obama, and Republicans needed only to nod their heads in agreement.

Something similar is taking place amid the several Obama administration scandals that have surfaced almost simultaneously. (There has been new information on Benghazi, but the issue itself isn’t new; the IRS and AP phone records scandals, in contrast, hit less than a week apart.) Both Democrats and Republicans are raising the prospect that the GOP could get carried away or bungle their response to the scandals–surely a possibility. One way to prevent that, however, would be to simply echo the way Obama’s supporters have tried to defend him.

As I wrote on Monday, one clear lesson from this is the danger of ever-expanding, unelected, unaccountable bureaucracy at the center of an increasingly powerful central government. That also happens to be the crux of President Obama’s governing strategy. Indeed, the IRS’s reach and power is expanded as part of ObamaCare–itself an expansion of government along demonstrably failed strategic lines. So it’s no surprise that after the IRS systematically targeted conservative and pro-Israel groups in order to eviscerate the First Amendment rights of those who disagreed with President Obama (and at the direction of high-ranking elected Democrats), the IRS official responsible for overseeing tax-exempt groups has since been moved over to run the IRS office responsible for ObamaCare.

Because this critique of big government is so difficult to deny without appearing foolish, many on the left have tried another tack to minimize the scandals. They argue that President Obama is not corrupt, but rather that he is dishonest and incompetent. This was the defense (such as it was) of Obama and Clinton with regard to Benghazi. The Accountability Review Board, which sought to exonerate Clinton as much as possible, noted that the State Department was a complete mess under Clinton. Security requests were ignored, because Clinton didn’t take the time to understand what was going on in Libya. And the chain of command was difficult to discern, leading to total chaos within the department. In other words, Clinton, who seems to be planning a run for the presidency, is a dangerously poor executive with a shallow grasp of geopolitical realities.

And a similar defense has arisen from the left of Obama on the issue. Here is Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post claiming that Benghazi was brought about by incompetence and carelessness. And here is the New York Times editorial board trying to shift the conversation from Obama’s initial failure in Libya to his ongoing failure in Libya. Liberal “defenses” of Obama and Clinton paint a picture of two hopelessly unqualified leaders.

It doesn’t get much better from there. As Pete noted this morning, Obama’s former chief strategist David Axelrod defended his former boss by saying that the government has become so vast and unwieldy that Obama couldn’t possibly know what his own government was doing or why it was doing it. The fact that Democrats can acknowledge this while still planning to make the government larger and less accountable shows the ideological nature of their obsession with expanding the state at the expense of the people.

And Jeffrey Rosen utilizes this explanation for the Obama administration’s seizure of the Associated Press phone records. Obama isn’t Nixon, Rosen argues, nor George W. Bush. According to Rosen he’s more like the maniacally antidemocratic Woodrow Wilson (again, this is a defense of Obama):

Unlike Obama, George W. Bush never ran for president by touting his praise of government transparency and whistleblowing. As a result, while Bush never pretended to be a defender of whistleblowers, he was sensitive, at least in his first term, to avoiding subpoenas that might threaten press freedom…. Obama has no similar self-doubts about his own credentials as a First Amendment advocate: Didn’t he defend the American free speech tradition at the U.N. even as he put pressure on YouTube to reconsider its decision not to remove the Innocence of the Muslims video?

[…]

And that law points to a better historic comparison. Obama’s rediscovery of the 1917 Espionage Act is grimly appropriate, since the president whose behavior on civil liberties he is most directly channeling isn’t, in fact, Richard Nixon or George W. Bush. It’s Woodrow Wilson.

Rosen, who calls this “technocratic arrogance,” is making two separate points here. One point is the inevitability of abuse when the president locks out criticism and empowers unelected bureaucrats to put his worldview into practice. The other point is that Rosen makes Obama out to be a fundamentally dishonest person. Obama gave grand addresses praising free speech while acting to undermine it. Obama offered self-righteous blather about the supposed evils conducted by his predecessors, and therefore he was entitled to expand on those supposed evils.

Conservatives are probably thinking they couldn’t have said it better themselves. And liberals seem determined to save them the trouble.


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